Turkey's courts have blocked Twitter ahead of local elections set to begin on March 30. The move came just hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a rally on the campaign trail, "Twitter and the rest, we will root out all of them. I don't care what the international community says, they will see the power of the Republic of Turkey." When trying to access the site, users have reported being redirected to a message by Turkey's telecommunications regulator citing a court order to apply "protection measures" on the website. Turkey is within the top ten countries for number of Twitter users in the world, but it is being criticized as joining the ranks of North Korea, Iran, and Syria in repression of social-media. However, Turkish residents are still able to access Twitter through the site's SMS service. Twitter played a major role in Turkey's protests in the summer of 2013 and has been a vehicle for the release of wire tapping recordings in a recent corruption scandal. Turkish President Abdullah Gul said complete social media bans are unacceptable, and circumvented the block tweeting "I hope this implementation won't last long." Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said it will file a legal challenge on Friday to the court decision to block Twitter access, and is additionally planning to file a criminal complaint against Erdogan for violating personal freedoms.
The Syrian army seized a historic Crusader castle Thursday. The Crac des Chevaliers, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates to the 12th century, had been a symbolic rebel stronghold. The victory came as part of a string of battlefield gains in a regime offensive to reclaim rebel held territory along the Lebanese border and sever opposition supply lines. Government forces have overtaken at least four towns and villages in the region in the past two weeks including Yabroud and al-Hosn. With three years of fierce fighting sparking mass refugee flows, Syrians topped the world's list of asylum seekers for the first time in 2013. According to a UNHCR report released Friday, in 2013, 56,351 Syrians sought asylum, more than double the number in 2012. Most have been turning to Europe, and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Anotonio Guterres said, "There is clear evidence in these numbers of how the Syria crisis in particular is affecting countries and regions of the world far removed from the Middle East."
- The United States has canceled a summit planned this month between President Obama and Gulf leaders over splits with allies in the region, however he will still meet with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Riyadh.
- Lebanon's parliament has approved a newly-formed cabinet breaking a political deadlock and giving the country a fully empowered government for the first time in over a year.
- The Israeli army has discovered what it has described as one of the longest and most advanced tunnels running from the southern Gaza Strip into Israel found to date.
- As Iranians celebrate the New Year, price increases for energy and commodities are overshadowing festivities and hopes for President Rouhani's promised economic recovery fade.
Arguments and Analysis
'Saudi Arabia's Muslim Brotherhood predicament' (Stéphane Lacroix, Washington Post)
"Although this isn't the first strain in the Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood relationship, the kingdom is unlikely to backtrack on its anti-Islamist stance -- at least anytime soon. The royal family is now convinced by the argument, often made by UAE officials, that the Muslim Brotherhood and all similar groups represent an existential threat for Gulf monarchies. Seen from Riyadh, the solution is to turn the clock back to the pre-1970s era, when the official religious establishment's quietist brand of Salafism had a monopoly over Saudi Islam. In a globalized kingdom with the largest proportion of social media users in the world, this will not easily succeed."
'Iraq's Do-Nothing Legacy' (Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Defense One)
"'We may think Iraq is done, but Iraq isn't,' says former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who served in Baghdad from 2007 to 2009. 'Once you are in, you are in. You can have a great philosophical debate about whether it was wise or not, but it doesn't affect the reality; you are there.'
Only America isn't there. Iraq is largely on its own -- and largely by its own request -- to build institutions, battle an insurgency and fight back against sectarian violence taking hold across the region fueled by Syria's chaos."
-- Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images